Lifting Up the Good

14 Tamuz 5775

One of the ways we speak about gratitude in Judaism is hakarat ha’tov, literally “recognizing the good.” It’s hard to cultivate gratitude unless you consciously stop and really notice a blessing that is present.

Looking back on the news these past two weeks, there have been several blessings to truly celebrate. Most obviously, there is the incredible Supreme Court victory for same-sex marriage. It feels great to know that our children will grow up knowing that any two people in our country who love each other can enjoy the blessing of marriage. We also saw the Supreme Court victory for Obamacare, whereby, in commentator Jeff Salzman’s words, “it is now embedded in American culture that a proper role of government is to ensure basic health care for its citizens.” Thank God. Then there is the removal of the Confederate flag in the South Carolina State House--a powerful sign of the crumbling of the racist cult of the Confederacy that until recently hung on tenaciously in parts of the South.

I’d like to use this blog post to lift up one other piece of ecological good news, because it’s not every day that someone with an audience of 1.2 billion people so beautifully enters the spiritual eco-justice fray. Reading Pope Francis’ recent papal eco-encyclical, On Care for Our Common Home, has been a real mechaya (a joy).

I’m including below a couple highlights from his writing that particularly touched me. First, he begins with mentioning the deep connection that Saint Francis of Asisi (whose name Pope Francis took), felt for the natural world: “[St. Francis] would call creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister’. Such a conviction cannot be written off as naive romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behaviour. If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.”

Secondly, Pope Francis, driven by his own commitment to voluntary simplicity, is aware that climate change is not just a technological issue, but requires profound change in our “throwaway culture.”  He writes: Humanity is called to create awareness of the need to change styles of life, production and consumption, to combat this warming or, at least, the human causes that produce or accentuate it.” Throughout his writing Francis helps us to remember that those continually most affected by climate change and eco-degradation are the poor, and we cannot lose sight of this.  All this has inspired the wonderful activist group 350.org to call Pope Francis’ placing of climate change front and center in the encyclical a “game-changer.” May it be so!

Finally, I have been excited to see parallels, and in some cases almost identical closeness, in Pope Francis’ Catholic eco-theology and the values of an ecological Judaism:  One lovely example from Pope Francis: “Our insistence that each human being is an image of God should not make us overlook the fact that each creature has its own purpose. None is superfluous. The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his [sic]  boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God.” This sentence could just as easily be found in a Jewish eco-theology.

Reading all this, I felt a profound sense of gratitude that someone in such a position of power  thinks this way. It could easily not be this way. I’m pretty sure there is no other single religious leader in the world with as much power as the Pope. The Jewish world contains nothing even slightly comparable. I feel even more gratitude that Pope Francis is media savvy and is gaining quite a following. May his courageous efforts be magnified, heeded and bear much fruit.  Amen.

~ Rabbi Josh